Lawrence School District officials sent a letter last month to the parents of 220 public- and private-school children who an internal audit revealed were receiving transportation services to which they were not entitled, based on district policy.
The letter, sent July 7, ignited a firestorm of complaints at a community meeting on Monday in the middle school lunchroom, where parents complained that their children’s safety was at risk, and that the district should have informed them sooner so they could have had more time to make arrangements to get their kids to school.
District officials said that a public referendum a decade ago established transportation eligibility distances, but that, over time, so many accommodations had been made that the policy was essentially no longer enforced. The audit uncovered the extent of the non-compliance, and the district decided to once again enforce the distances approved by the referendum.
“The last thing we wanted to do was take transportation away,” said Superintendent Gary Schall. “We conducted a complete audit of transportation, and we have to be in compliance with the law.”
New York state requires that kindergarten through eighth-grade students receive transportation if they live at least two miles from their school, and high school students, three miles. The guidelines approved by Lawrence district residents are more generous, allowing for door-to-door transportation for pre-K and kindergarten students and providing buses for first- to fifth-graders who live at least a half-mile from school, sixth- to eighth-graders who live at least one mile away and high school student who live at least 1¼ miles away.
For parents of elementary schoolchildren who live closer than those distances, and who will now have to walk to school across what those parents consider heavily trafficked and dangerous roads, the district’s decision did not sit well. “It’s not safe — our children are in danger,” said Sophia Coleman, speaking for a group of parents who live on Bayview Avenue in Inwood who do not want their children crossing a street used by tractor-trailers and mass-transit buses.
The district has maximum-distance regulations as well. If a student lives more than 15 miles from a school — or 50 miles, for special-education students — the district is not required to provide transportation.
Felicia Sarnelli, a resource room teacher at the Number Five School who lives in Atlantic Beach, lost the bus her daughter took to Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville because of the allowable mileage limit. “There was no plan for this,” Sarnelli said, referring to the July 7 letter. “It was done too quickly, and there was not enough concern for working parents.”
Schall said that to help ensure the safety of children who will now be walking to school, he would request 10 additional crossing guards from the Nassau County Police Department. The district had six crossing guards this year.
Advocacy, Schall said, would be the parents’ best weapon, and he added that they, along with the school district, should make the county aware of their needs. “We have been in contact with the police,” he said.
Several parents asked about the possibility of seeking legal approval to delay compliance with the guidelines for one school year. According to Schall, that is a recommendation he would make to the Board of Education, and the district’s legal counsel would need to be consulted and make a request to the State Education Department.
A public referendum could also be presented to change the mileage regulations, but even if it were approved, the changes would not go into effect until 2015-16.
“Decisions were made to be in compliance not based on budget,” Schall said. “Everyone is feeling the pain of this decision.”
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